Was Charlie Poole THE Missing Link of American Music?
This is a three-disc, 222-minute box set that shoots for the moon. Here you will find just about everything you need to know about the life and career and music of a guy named Charlie Poole. Columbia-slash-Sony knows that you probably don’t know who the hell Charlie Poole was, but they want to make sure that that changes. In fact, their intention is even bigger than that. They want to claim, without actually saying it out loud, that Poole might be the central missing link of American music.
Poole was a banjo player and singer who lived in North Carolina from 1892 to 1931, when his hard living finally caught up to him. He led several groups, most notably the North Carolina Ramblers, playing what came to be called country music all over the American South, and recorded 70-plus records back in those early times, mostly on Columbia. This collection puts together 40 of those sides, as well as songs by other artists that either inspired him or that built on his legacy.
But, since most people in the world have never heard of Charlie Poole, this begs the question of just what his legacy is. One would have to start, I guess, with the fact that his recording of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” in 1925 sold more than 100,000 copies, and might have been the first time many people outside the South ever heard country music. So that’s something. But there’s more.
Another part of it all is that Charlie Poole set a template for what country musicians were like. He drank like a damned fish and ran liquor during Prohibition and ripped off his bandmates—in fact, this “modern” behavior forms one of the legs of the thesis. It is claimed that his bad attitude crept into his music and became part of his persona, and that this is one of the first instances of this in American musical history. The liner notes detail all this stuff and make it sound credible, but I suppose there might have been plenty more where Poole came from, so I’m kind of “meh” about this line of argument. (Although it is pretty funny to read about Poole’s fight with a policeman, wherein he escaped being shot in the head only because someone knocked the cop’s elbow at the last second. SO GANGSTA.)
What the collection makes clear is that Poole was amazing. His singing voice cannot be called beautiful; better words might be “resonant” or “cutting”, or perhaps “charmingly nasal”. His banjo playing was pretty great, thanks in part to an accident that crippled his right hand (he vowed that he could catch a hard-thrown baseball without a glove, SO GANGSTA), but not so much that it sends up any goosebumps. But, as we know, music cannot be boiled down to particular quantifiable skills. Poole just plain rips through all his tracks like he was born to be a star. Maybe that’s one of the main legs of the thesis: in his nasal twangy way, with his “clawhammer” banjo style, Charlie Poole just sounds like he was supposed to be a superstar.
It’s no surprise, hearing it, that “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” was such a huge hit. It has all the momentum of an old train, with Poole slamming away on his banjo and Posey Rorer sliding the same violin riff over and over. It’s hard to understand Poole very well, but repeated listenings reveal that this is the song that says “who’s gonna shoe your pretty white feet”, which is iconic as hell. But this is just the tip of Poole’s mastery. His other hits, like “Monkey on a String” and “I’m the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World”, are just as impressive. There is nothing wasted, no excess movement, no fat to be trimmed off: it’s utilitarian music, made to make people dance and/or weep.
But it’s also fun music. Poole was an appealing performer, capable of comedy records like “Hungry Hash House” (“Oh, the beefsteak it was rare / And the butter had red hair / Baby had its feet both in the soup”) and sentimental stuff like “Old and Only in the Way”. He brings a certain insouciant swing to all his material, from the casual “Moving Day” to the silly waltz “My Wife Went Away and She Left Me” to the suitelike instrumental-with-narration called “Southern Medley”. He could sound like the most truthful singer in the world (“If the River Was Whiskey”) or sound like a god damned liar (“Goodbye Booze”).
But Charlie Poole didn’t write any of these songs. He adapted them, rewriting a word or two here and there and changing the title, making them serve his purposes; the aforementioned “Southern Medley”, recorded in 1930, borrowed liberally from Fred Van Eps’ “Dixie Medley”, first captured by Thomas Edison in 1906. His hit “The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee”, we are told, was the first country recording of a 19th century song. Poole took music wherever he could find it.
This included “coon” songs, minstrel tunes that were most often performed by white singers in blackface. These songs were wildly popular in the U.S. after the Civil War, and recordings of them tended toward the broadest racial stereotypes imaginable, with huge orchestral flourishes and put-on “Negro” accents. This is one of the weirder phenomena in our nation’s history, unexplainable except by that bizarre American combination of fascination-with-the-other and flat-out racism.
Charlie Poole was exposed to these songs growing up, and recorded many of them. The title song of the collection, for example, was first written by a black man, Shelton Brooks, and first became a hit in a blackface version by a Philadelphia policeman named Eddie Morton. The genius of this box set is that we get to hear the original of this song, as well as Poole’s version. Morton’s version is fairly grotesque, with swooping trombones and a white man’s amped-up parody of “colored” singing. But Poole’s version is very different: he plays it the way he did everything else, just guitar and banjo and fiddle, and sings it with no detectable racial condescension. It just sounds like a country song, as if maybe Charlie Poole did not see the need for barriers between different musical genres, or different races of American people.
That idea, that Poole is responsible for much of the interaction between black and white musical traditions in America, is the most fascinating theory put forward in this box set. It is never actually stated that way, at least in the promo materials I have here (which may or may not contain text from the actual liner notes themselves, I’m not sure), but it is implied heavily. When we hear the original “Coon From Tennessee” (by the uncharmingly named Georgia Crackers!) with its slurry fake-Negroisms, and contrast it with Poole’s much more straightforward version, or hear the difference between the original of “It’s Moving Day” and the way Poole did it, it becomes a very seductive theory indeed. It’s almost as if we have found The Man Who Brought America Together.
Like most seductive theories, however, it is impossible to prove. It may well just be that Poole was an equal-opportunity thief; after all, he also covers many songs that are whiter than snow. (One of the strangest is “I Loved a Sailor”, a countrified version of Billy Murray’s “Come Take a Trip in My Air-Ship”. Both versions are written from the persona of someone, presumably a woman, who loves a young pilot, and sung by men. This adds a frisson of homosexuality into the mix—although this kind of gender-bending was relatively common in songs back then, it is still charmingly gay-sounding, and therefore awesome.) And I don’t see any documentation that Poole was trying to unite any traditions on purpose. For all I know, he was just as racist and opportunist as any of the blackface musicians out there, although maybe the real liner notes have lots of documentation that he wasn’t.
So maybe the best thing is to not worry about that theory. This box set is all kinds of wonderful even without it. We get to hear songs by people like Uncle Dave Macon, a banjo player who was massively influenced by Poole’s style; his performance of “Uncle Dave’s Beloved Solo”, a medley of devotional songs, is a highlight of this set for me, as are other tunes by Carter & Young, the Peerless Quintet, Dock Walsh, and Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers. It is like a fun American history lesson, with banjos.
Charlie Poole was a hugely talented and endlessly fascinating performer, who should occupy a much larger place in music history than he has been afforded before now. This box set, made largely possible by Poole historian Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, is an absolute stone-cold lock for anyone who cares at all about American music.